Today I received two e-mails that--for very different reasons--made me happy. Here's the first one. (Note: I've changed the writers' names, but the text is unedited.)
Mr. Ford,I get a lot of mail from students writing papers, mostly from kids who have read one of my young adult novels. Usually they arrive on Sunday evening and end with "my paper is due tomorrow morning, so please write me back before 8:30." Also popular is the "My teacher told us to write to someone who wrote a book and ask what it's like to write a book and where do you get your ideas so I picked you and could you send me a signed book kthxbi" letter.
Were you born a homosexual or did you choose to become one (long story short I'm writing a research paper for my English 104 class and I came upon your book, and I just HAD to email you)?
Debbie in Dubuque
Patrick tells me not to answer these letters. But here's the thing--they're not letters, they're blackmail notes. Oh, they might sound all cute and friendly, but read between the lines. Do you see it? Right there? The part that says:
"You could ignore this but if you do I'll tell all my friends that you're mean and your book sucks, and they'll tell all their friends, and then I'll tell my cousin Amy in New Jersey and she'll tell all her friends, and this summer I'll tell everyone at Camp Monkewinnemac and then pretty soon every kid in the whole United States will hate you, and once I write to my penpal Jeanine in France so will everyone in Europe, and also I'll tell everyone in my Jonas Brothers online group and then it will be all over the internet and you might as well die."So it's a problem.
But I like Debbie's letter. First, the subject line was: REALLY Quick Question! Clearly, she understands that a world-famous author such as myself is terribly busy and can't possibly have time to interact with his readers. A clever girl, our Debbie. Thoughtful. It makes me wonder about her. Who is she? What is this English 104, and what kind of teacher does Debbie have who is encouraging the students to write to world-famous homosexual authors? It gives me much to think about. Why, it's practically the foundation for a thrilling novel!
Then there's today's second e-mail.
Mike, I am a Viet Nam veteran. I remember the exact moment I came out to myself. I was sitting on a pile of dirt, filling sandbags, getting ready for the Tet holiday, 1972, feeling like shit. And a sergeant walked by on his way to the shower, with only a towel wrapped around his waist and flip/flops on his feet. I realized whatever joy, happiness, fulfillment there is in this life; I would find it only with another man. Your descriptions of the night of the draft lottery, the first smell of Viet Nam when getting off the plane; these are memories that few people I know can identify with. And you described them so well.Now, I know what novel this man is talking about. It's Full Circle. And I've received this letter before. Not the same one, of course, but similar ones. And every time they make me cry.
I am not one of those writers who gets feelings of well-being and contentment from having written a book. I am one of those writers who is almost constantly overwhelmed by feeling that there isn't a point to anything, including the writing of books. At least until I read letters like this one. Then I remember that there is a point--sometimes you tell a story that allows someone else to realize that their story is important.
This is a good feeling. It usually doesn't last long, sometimes an hour, or a day, maybe a week or two at most. But often it's enough to lift that oppressive wet wool blanket of doubt that often makes writing an impossible task. For me, anyway. I know there are writers who get up every morning and do cartwheels over the thought of working all day. But I hate those writers and don't talk to any of them, and so occasionally I need people like A Soldier to remind me why I do this.
So thanks to Debbie in Dubuque and A Soldier for brightening my day. Debbie, I hope you get an A. Soldier, it was an honor to capture some of your experience in my novel.
Oh, what did I answer Debbie? I told her I was born fabulous and grew into it.